On Labels

The last five years have made it exceedingly tough to identify as a Christian. If I call myself a Christian, will people think I’m a Trump supporter? Will they think I’m anti-mask and anti-vax? Will they think I agree with everything (or anything?) that Franklin Graham says? Will they think I hate gay people? Will they assume I’m a white supremacist? A Christian Nationalist?

This has been coming for a long time. Even when I first converted in the 1990s, I did it in spite of the Religious Right, the so-called Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell (Sr.), and Pat Robertson. I did it in spite of the holy rollers who would tell me I was going to go to hell if I didn’t believe in their Jesus in exactly the same way they did.

But then I heard Jesus speak to the woman at the well. I saw him hang out with the outcasts and the oppressed. And I experienced Christ personally in ways I could not deny. I was in.

Until I wasn’t. Until I was required to believe in an inerrant Bible. Until my church told me I had to vote against the right of two people who loved each other but happened to be of the same gender to get married. Until I needed to accept that most people ever born were going to be eternally punished in hellfire.

I was out, or at least just going through the motions. Go to church, check Twitter. Critique the sermon for the theology I no longer believed. Become more and more bitter at all the people around me that not only voted for Trump but continued to support him wholeheartedly in the midst of his increasingly immoral and authoritarian Presidency.

And then I was free. Christ the Lover showed me that the way of Love was truly the fabric of the universe. That in the end, everything was good and everything would be alright.

But I still had a problem with the label. That Christian label, the one associated with everything I no longer believed and actions that I felt were not only no longer loving but outright harmful. And so I’ve spent the last three years tiptoeing around it. Am I a Christian? Not really. Follower of the Way of Jesus, sure. Believer in the historic creeds of the church. Mystic participant in the Love of God.

But Christian? No thanks.

I was in my “just can’t even” phase with respect to the church for most of the time that Rachel Held Evans was doing her wonderful work of allowing people to be free to question the established orthodoxies of evangelicalism and participate in God’s extravagant banquet table, where all were welcome whether they believed wholeheartedly or not at all. But in the past three years, since I was awakened by God, I have taken comfort in her words, even now that she is no longer here to speak them.

In her posthumous book, Wholehearted Faith, she says:

“It would be dishonest for me not to say I am a Christian when Christianity is the story I will wrestle with forever. There’s something about Christianity—and by that, I mean the venerable, beautiful story that has Jesus at its center—I just can’t shake. And I don’t just mean the parts I like, or the parts that on good days I believe. I mean the whole thing. The whole screwed-up, embarrassing, dysfunctional family of the church is as much a part of my identity as my gender, my nationality, my ethnicity, and my name.”

This is me. Even when I didn’t believe much of anything that was in the Bible, I couldn’t escape the story of Jesus. The Jesus who healed people, listened to people, and forgave people. Even when the church has again and again excluded people and rallied around its own privilege while fighting against the very people it was called to love, I could not escape the God who personally revealed themselves to me in times of silence and mystery.

And I’m not sure I want to give up St. Francis.

Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or Martin Luther King. Or Mother Teresa. Or Henri Nouwen. Or C.S. Lewis. Or St. Gregory of Nyssa. Or St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Or Julian of Norwich. Or the Celtic mystics. Or John Wesley. Or Oscar Romero. Or Walter Rauschenbusch. Or Rachel Held Evans.

And I certainly don’t want to give up the Eucharist. Or praying the rosary. Or walking the labyrinth. Or the Daily Office. Or the Book of Common Prayer. Or even some of the less theologically troubling evangelical worship songs.

I think these things are worth fighting for. These Christian things are worth fighting for. The label Christian is worth fighting for. Not in a violent, militaristic, “you’re out and I’m in” kind of way. But by asserting that I am a Christian, and while I do not agree with what you are doing to my church, I am going to stand here and claim my heritage nonetheless.